The melting of Arctic ice first made the Northwest Passage passable for a cruise ship in 1984, creating an opportunity for outfitters to cater to those eager to sail through a Passage so fabled and fraught with danger that 19th century explorers' ships are still missing under the frigid water. Times and temperatures have continued to change and when NASA released a satellite image of the passage earlier this month, it looked easily navigable. The catch: As Arctic ice disappears at a faster rate, the very trend that made the trips possible is now making them increasingly dangerous and unpredictable.
"Some waterways have only had a quick pass-through by the survey ships because there has always been ice," says Andrew Prossin, who has worked with Arctic and Antarctic cruise outfitters for 20 years. "We need to think about finding out what is down there."
In other words, open water is a mixed blessing when no one knows what's underneath it.
Cruise tourism to the Antarctic exploded in 1980s and the ships ferrying tourists to the European Arctic are increasingly full. Meanwhile, in Canada, the lack of available information on arctic waters, the unpredictable ice conditions in the Northwest Passage and global warming's effects on wildlife are making visiting one of the world's last great wildernesses more difficult.
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Last year the Clipper Adventurer ran aground in Coronation Gulf when, as Prossin described it, "It decided to go exploring." The 120 passengers aboard the research vessel-turned-cruise ship had to be flown home and the owners of the boat sued Canada for $15 million, alleging that the country's Department of Fisheries and Oceans failed to alert its navigators to an underwater ice shelf -- essentially claiming that the maps were wrong. The Canadian Hydrographic Service actually issued an alert about the shelf in 2007, but the takeaway lesson may be that maps of the region are still being filled out.
These hazards do not seem to have been at the forefront of travelers' minds while reading story after story about Arctic thaw. In truth, it is becoming easier, but more dangerous to navigate the Northwest Passage. More boats are getting tourists all the way through each summer, but those tourists may be on more extreme trips than they suspect.
"It used to be that the big component of people who came were looking for the birds or the bears. Everyone was on a mission," says Prossin, who currently serves as the managing director of One Ocean Expeditions. "Now a lot of people are just looking for the ultimate holiday."
A significant chunk of any holiday in the Northwest Passage today is likely to be spent dodging chunks of ice. Despite what it may look like from a NASA-eye view, the ice has not simply receded -- it has broken up and is now wandering freely around the open water, creating dynamic and unpredictable hazards.
"Climate change is changing ice patterns/conditions year to year," Patrick Maher, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and a steering committee member of the International Polar Tourism Research Network, told HuffPost in an email. Researchers are finding that chunks of thick multi-year ice are present in the passage's waterways along with more brittle pieces of single-year ice. Hitting one mini-berg could mean a minor crunch. Hitting another could mean a major problem, and that potential emergency is compounded by the current lack of support systems in the North.
"In my opinion -- Canada has definitely been negligent/complacent in their ability to monitor and react to issues around shipping in the Arctic," wrote Maher, who also co-edited the book Cruise Tourism in Polar Regions. "It will inevitably fall on a small nearby community, or another cruise vessel to assist with any SAR [search and rescue] incident. ... Communities are a bit worried because they're caught in the middle with economic boom coming in, but dramatic problems if there is another grounding like the Clipper last year."
If plans proceed at their current pace, Canada will have put its money where its mouth is by 2017, when the coast guard's expensive new boats cast off for the first time. In the meantime, Maher says the country is less focused on monitoring the waterways than it is on convincing the international community that the passage is not a "transit passage" open to all international ships. According to Maher: "Canada is puffing up its chest against the Russians and other sovereignty claimants, with good reason, and that is helping a bit in terms of improving capacity for SAR… better monitoring will be quite a few years off."
With new support vessels still on the horizon, cruisers heading north over the next few years will have to put their faith in the "Ice Masters," local navigators well-versed in specific waterways that all cruises are required to bring along. Though there is no organization parallel to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which monitors Antarctic cruising, many of the outfitters in Canadian waters are members of AECO, a Norwegian group that monitors the safety of Europe's Arctic cruising fleet.
"All our members make every attempt to avoid any situations or incidents putting guests, employees, environment, local populations or vessels at risk. This includes extra precautionary procedures in areas with limited SAR capacity, such as Antarctica and Arctic regions," said AECO General Secretary Frigg Jorgensen, adding that 12,000 people are now cruising through Norway's Svalbard region annually. "As long as ice conditions change from year to year, it will be difficult to plan on set numbers of cruises in the near future. For the time being, cruising in North Russia is increasing more than cruises in Canada, which for our members have decreased recent years."
Arctic outfitters shrug off the decline in interest in Northwest Passage cruising exactly the same way hoteliers the world over are shrugging off declining occupancy rates, citing that the recession has been hard on everyone. A rebound seems to be on the way though. Prossin's One Ocean Expeditions has already sold all of its berths for next summer -- well ahead of schedule -- and Chuck Cross of Polar Cruises practically guarantees his company's boats will be full as well.
"Now we're getting more and more people who think they're on a Royal Caribbean Cruise," says Cross, whose nickname is "Bait" thanks to his refusal to carry a gun in bear country.
Cross says that despite the expectations of some of his customers, the dream of standing on a cruise ship deck and looking out on fabulous Arctic wildlife and landscapes is just that: a dream. Disappearing ice means that ice-dwelling animals like walruses are harder to find and even polar bears, a perennial favorite, are more likely to be seen on land during day trips.
The decks are also likely to be a little less polished than those of larger ships. The arctic fleet consists of communist-era vessels, former spy ships and research vessels on summer vacation. Because of the rigors of Arctic travel, ice-worthiness is privileged over comfort in the north and the barrier to entering the outfitting game is incredibly high. The 2007 sinking of the first cruise ship to make the trip through the passage off Antarctica was a stark reminder of just how specialized polar fleets need to be.
"There really are only a handful of ships and groups capable of doing this," said Cross.
The thaw may be on in the north, but global warming's silver lining is tattered and torn. The boom in Arctic tourism is probably waiting just around the corner. The charms of Sisimiut, Pond Inlet and Kugluktuk -- from seal hunting to Eskimo art -- will stay exotic for a little while longer. But the passage no one could navigate has become the passage no one can tame.